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Here's how to have alcohol and still get results on a bulking diet

Everything you need to know about how you can drink and not screw up your muscle growth
By Dean Phillips
Evidence Based

You’ve come to get some answers to a common dilemma, right?

You’ve been invited for drinks, you want to go, but you also don’t want to stunt your muscle growth and you want to stay lean...

Is it even possible to enjoy alcohol and be muscular all at once?! 

Don't worry, I've got you…

In this article we’re going to look at how much alcohol is healthy for you, how alcohol affects muscle growth and then best ways to have it as part of a bulking diet, and still live a healthy lifestyle.

How much alcohol is healthy?

Now before we dive into alcohol and health. Let's make it clear - I'm not a doctor, however everything outlined below is what the experts (scientists and doctors) and research shows.

And it’s extremely confusing...

  • The World Health Organization recommends avoiding alcohol altogether.
  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans says to keep drinking to moderate drinking, which it says is 2 drinks per day.
  • The Mayo Clinic says recommends 0–2 drinks per day
  • Harvard recommends no alcohol but also that it isn’t realistic for most, just to limit the minimal health risks from minor alcohol usage.
  • The USDA recommends 1-2 per day.
  • A 2018 study shows that just 2 glasses of alcohol increases your risk for cancer.
  • Then light drinking has been shown to have some positives on heart health (study).

No wonder headlines are constantly changing between:

“Drink 1 glass of wine a day” to “Quit drinking!”.

So what’s the main conclusion of scientific research?

When we look at the main idea behind what the above is saying, it comes down to:

  1. You can have 1-2 drinks of alcohol per day, and still be healthy.
  2. If you’re not a drinker already, there’s no reason to start (health wise).
  3. If you’re prone to binging-drinking often, then you’re likely to be taking some serious health risks.

I’d agree with all of that, and take it a step further by saying that 1-2 drinks over 1-2 days is actually more likely to contribute towards the good of your health than the bad (study, study).

The more you drink and the more often, the more severe the cost towards your health. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a 3rd glass of wine or beer, but going from light to moderate to heavy drinking too often is an easy way to spiral.

So drinking isn’t as bad (or as good) as many of us may have been led to believe.

But what about for muscle growth?

How does alcohol affect muscle growth during a bulking diet?

If alcohol isn’t all terrible for our health and can be part of a healthy diet, does that mean it’s the same for muscle growth?

Let’s take a look.

How many calories are in alcohol?

Before we talk about all the details of having alcohol during a bulking diet, let’s talk about the foundation - calories.

After all, a large part of bulking up is about these right?

Simple alcohol (aka ethanol) has 7 calories per gram.

However, each drink differs dramatically:

Drink Type

Average Calories

Dry wines 

90 calories per 3.5fl oz/100ml)

Vodka, gin, whiskey

70 calories per shot/35ml/1.1fl oz

Rum, scotch

80 calories per shot/35ml/1.1fl oz

Tequila

98 calories per shot/45ml/1.5fl oz

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol isn’t a card. It’s actually it’s own separate macronutrient - a 4th dimension!1

And as it’s 7 calories per gram, it’s pretty easy to consume a lot of calories in a short amount of time. Unlike having too much food, this usually leads to getting drunk, vomiting and being nauseous.

The good news is most of the calories in alcohol are burned off first as body heat, and even used as fuel before glucose from carbs or lipids from fats (study).

How does alcohol affect relaxation?

Once you’ve had a drink, it’s easy for a warm blanket feeling to come over you. Making you feel relaxed and often sleepy.

Now this is a double-edged sword:

The feeling it gives you and the ease can be just what you need after a long day at work or when stress has been higher than usual.

However, that relaxing feeling is due to the fact that alcohol is a sedative and a depressant on the central nervous system (CDN).2 

Which has its downsides.

If you’ve got anxiety, alcohol has been shown to make it worse, it can with alcohol abuse cause anxiety and has been shown to trigger depression (study, study).

It seems to amplify how you’re already feeling - so if you’re anxious, it’s likely to make it worse. 

Alcohol’s effects on insulin sensitivity 

Insulin sensitivity indicates whether your calories are more likely to be used as fat storage on a daily basis.

The higher in it. The better.

And there’s some good news shown when it comes to insulin sensitivity and alcohol. 

Some studies have shown there’s a minor increase when minor alcohol consumption is involved (study, study)

If you’re a skinny guy, then this likely isn’t going to be any use to you.

And to most the effects are very minor. So it won’t completely resorrect you after a few drinks, but it’s good to know it doesn’t have any negative effects, on the lower end of drinking anyway. 

Alcohol’s effects on testosterone

This is a big topic for guys. Testosterone is directly correlated with how much muscle growth we can have as a guy. 

The more we have, the bigger we’ll generally get.

The lower testosterone is the more problems we face:

  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Infertility
  • A drop of muscle mass

So it’s safe to say that we want to maximise it.

Thankfully, alcohol doesn't seem to affect it as much as we’d think (study, study, study. study),

When drinking within the guidelines of 1-2 (and even up to 3) testosterone has been shown to surprisingly increase.

However, things start to tank when we binge drink3 and levels decrease by 45% (with 23% sticking around the next day) (study, study, study).

So it’s pretty safe to say that drinking simple spirits (like whiskey) in the range of 1-3 glasses won’t have any negative effects on your testosterone levels and may even improve them.4

Alcohol’s effects on recovery and protein usage

Protein synthesis5 is a crucial part of building muscle. Just like testosterone, we want to maximise as much as possible. 

Sadly protein synthesis is affected when drinking (study) by around 24%. However, with just a few drinks, it doesn’t seem to directly affect muscle growth (study) or being able to recover from workouts, more than a workout session does (study).

Health improvements

This is where things get a bit tricky.

Alcohol has been shown to have a lot of health benefits, and some not so good things.

To stay on topic of how this applies to muscle growth, I’m going to summarise this part:

The health positives 

  • It can improve and raise cholesterol (HDL) (studystudy)
  • Helps relax and lowers blood pressure, leading to less chance of heart disease (study)
  • Decrease the risk of developing diabetes (study)
  • Reduce stress and anxiety but is only temporary (studystudy).

The health negatives

  • Causes impaired brain function with long-term abuse (study)
  • Memory loss, amnesia and blackouts (study)
  • Memory loss, amnesia and blackouts (study)
  • An increased risk of cancer (studystudy)

Alcohol affects your sleep

When you go out and have a lot to drink, you likely get a hangover the next day.

The tough part is that mixed with tiredness and there’s a reason behind all of that:

It affects our ability to have deep relaxing sleep (otherwise known as REM sleep). This is a big one as poor, or a lack of, REM sleep has been linked to not just grogginess but a whole host of health issues if abused too much. 

As alcohol is a diuretic6, it also has us getting up to use the bathroom frequently, which disturbs our ability to rest well.

And lastly, it can affect our bodies natural circadian rhythm.7 This causes us to wake up often and not rest.

We know how important sleep is, so not getting enough sleep is detrimental to our lifestyle and muscle growth.

Can be difficult to stay lean

The difficulty with staying lean whilst bulking and drinking alcohol doesn’t come down to the fact that alcohol has anything special that triggers fat storage.

The main reason it makes it difficult is that it’s tough to stay within your calories and not over consume when drinking. 

As mentioned before, calories in alcohol is 7 calories per gram and it’s easy to have several drinks without knowing how much over your calories you are.

The best way to overcome this, as we’ll get to soon, is to plan ahead and track your calories from alcohol. It’s not the end of the world with the odd drink, but if it’s more than once a week, I’d recommend being aware of it (as unsexy or boring as it might seem).

Makes the rest of your diet difficult

When we drink we tend to let go of our inhibitions.

We tend to eat less healthy foods - we opt for mindless eating - eat more processed food, sugar filled drinks and miss out of nutrients. This happening once is fine, but consistently and you’re easily on your way to forgetting your habits (especially if a hangover lasts a few days).

We’re more likely to skip the gym - Because of the hangover it’s easy to get into the habit of not going to the gym. Breaking compliance starts with saying no once, then twice and a snowball happens. Of course, you can get back in the habit of going to the gym again, but missing too many sessions,whilst still consuming a bulking diet, isn’t wise for your muscle to fat ratio.And if you’re thinking about drinking the day of training: 

1) Don’t. You’ll likely injure yourself and 2) your strength and power won’t be great (even with just 2-3 drinks in your system - study).

We forget to eat - As mentioned, alcohol can have you eating more processed foods, but it can also cause you to skip meals and forget about time. Time goes by and instead of getting in the calories they need, they have a light snack and go to sleep. 

Of course, this isn’t something that matters in the short-term. Missing a session, eating too much or not eating enough once a month isn’t going to do a great deal. Once a week? The chances of success decrease. More than that? Definitely going to affect your muscle growth, health and quality of life.

How to Drink Without Compromising Progress (Muscle Growth)

As mentioned, 1-2 drinks isn’t going to do a tonne of damage. 

But if you’re trying to minimise the risk of it affecting your muscle growth and want some steps you can take, I’ve got you covered.

Leave some calories for the alcohol

As you know, calories in alcohol can add up fast. You can easily consume 1000 calories in a short window of time (especially if you’re a whiskey sour fan like I am8). 

For that reason, plan ahead (more on that in a second). You’ll want to plan the amount of drinks you’re likely aiming to have (maximum) and plan your days calories around that. 

Now if you’re a skinny guy, this isn’t going to be a huge issue and you’re likely going to benefit from the extra calories, if you’re hitting your protein quota for the day. But for others, you’ll want to subtract that amount from your overall daily calories (aiming to not go beyond 500-700 calories above your daily calorie intake9).

Go for lower calorie drinks

If you’re planning on going beyond the 1-2 moderate drinking range, then it’s probably best to have lower calorie based drinks. 

Here’s a few of them:

  • Dry wines (an average of 90 calories per 3.5fl oz/100ml);
  • Vodka, gin, whiskey (an average of 70 calories per shot/35ml/1.1fl oz);
  • Rum, scotch (an average of 80 calories per shot/35ml/1.1fl oz);
  • Tequila (an average of 98 calories per shot/45ml/1.5fl oz);

Of course, if you dislike a drink. Don’t just pick it for the sake of lower calories. You do however have the option of picking zero-calorie mixers.

Limit fat-intake

Fat has 9 calories per gram, making it slightly more calories than alcohol. If your goal is to lower your calories overall, then fat intake is the place you’ll want to look as it adds up incredibly fast. 

I wouldn’t recommend lowering it outside of the day you’re drinking though, as fat has many benefits to male health such as increased testosterone, brain function and can help you stay leaner (study, study, study).

Train earlier in the day

Training on days where you’ve consumed a lot of calories can have unexpected benefits; strength workouts increase your insulin sensitivity, which means your calories are way less likely to convert to fat than on an average day.

You’ll also be able to use the calories from drinking towards recovery, which with a high protein intake can aid muscle growth.

Hit your protein goal

No matter what you do, you want to maximise your protein goal10 for the day. This way you’ll be able to function best and stand a chance of still building or preserving muscle mass.

Have food stocked away for the next day

To make it easier to eat healthy the next day, plan your day’s worth of food and have healthy snacks stocked up in the house. 

If you’re not up for cooking first thing, plan to go out for breakfast and prepare a healthier lunch. Also be sure to consume plenty of water and limit sugary drinks the next day (even if it’s what you feel will “fix you” from your hangover).

Final thoughts

Drinking isn’t going to harm your progress, if it’s in the moderate range. The odd binge drink, although not advised, won’t do a tonne of harm in the short-term.

Too much though, and you risk affecting more than your muscle growth and stand a chance of causing health issues (even as a skinny guy). 

If you stay consistent with healthy nutrition habits, train often and limit your alcohol to the moderate range, then there’s no reason alcohol can’t be part of a healthy, muscle growth lifestyle plan - Cheers!

  1. When we think of macros we usually only talk about protein, carbs and fats for good reason.

  2. The central nervous system (CNS) controls most functions of the body and mind. It’s pretty much like your computer chip, controlling everything you do. Hence why if it’s affected by drink, things can run a lot slower than usual.

  3. The study looked at 9+ drinks but binge drinking is when 5+ drinkers are consumed in a short time frame

  4. Something to bear in mind is that although something might increase testosterone or any hormone positively, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to drink 1-3 glasses a day. These things have diminishing returns and alcohol has a lot of negative downsides vs the positives of a testosterone increase.

  5. Wondering what the heck protein synthesis is? Why is protein even important? I got you! We’ve covered that in a detailed, geeky guide here.

  6. It increases the amount of water and salt that's lost from the body

  7. This is an internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats on each rotation of the Earth (roughly every 24 hours).

  8. My choice of drink for anyone curious is a whiskey sour, old fashioned or in recent years a red wine. What can I say, I’m getting old 🍷

  9. This is a lot of calories above what you want. But the reality is if you plan on drinking 1000 calories of alcohol (ouch!) and subtract that from your diet, then you’re going to be drunk and hungover real fast.  This is an insurance policy to help on the odd night this happens.

  10. Clean bulking go here. Dirty bulking go here. Just want to know about protein in particular, then there’s this guide here.

Evidence Based

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our team strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.

This article contains scientific references. These are usually shown through (sources, study) which are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.